Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Captain's Log: Sherlock Holmes in 2012

Instead of reporting on outward events as in previous entries, I thought I’d make this an inward-looking log. I’ve recently been viewing DVDs of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes series, originally from Granada TV, particularly the second Return of Sherlock Holmes series of stories. The restored video of these DVDs certainly helps reveal the sumptuous visuals and the subtle expressions as well as flamboyant gestures Brett employs in his striking interpretation of Holmes. I’ve written elsewhere in more detail about Brett, but here I wanted to mention a few elements pertinent to sci-fi TV and film.

As noted in DVD commentaries etc., the role of Doctor Watson, especially as played in this second series by Edward Hardwicke, is the everyman figure who is the stand-in for the viewer—the way viewers participate in Holmes’ world. This is also how the companion’s role is typically viewed in Doctor Who, as former exec producer Russell K. Davies often said. There in fact is a lot of Holmes in the Doctor Who character--the man who is so far ahead of anyone else in solving the mystery. Perhaps some portrayals of the Doctor make a stronger connection than others: Tom Baker certainly (and he went on to play Sherlock Holmes in a TV version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”). And David Tennant, including his long Brett-like coat, and with Brett's way of being more excited by the mysteries he must solve than is quite seemly, when murder is involved, or the fate of the universe.

This role of the companion is harder to isolate in Star Trek. Probably the Wesley Crusher character in Next Gen was meant to be the young viewer’s representative, although it didn’t seem to play out that way. It may be that the Outsider role (Spock, Data, etc.) was the closest, which may be partly why viewers identified with these characters so strongly.

Speaking of Next Gen, a pre-Counsellor Troi Marina Sirtis has a small role in one of the Holmes’ stories—she plays a Sicilian in London, and most of her dialogue is in Italian. The Sicilian characters are emotionally all over the top, nearly a stereotyped portrayal. But she does her part well. I recognized her immediately but then wasn’t sure—the eye color was wrong. Then I realized that she wore darkening contact lenses for TNG. This episode was directed by David Carson (as were others in the series), who directed Sirtis and the other TNG actors as well as William Shatner etc. in Star Trek: Generations. (Another casting note: Jude Law, who plays Doctor Watson in the recent Robert Downey movie, was actually in one of the later Brett-Holmes stories as a very young man.)

I also finally saw the DVD of the film 2012. Roland Emmerich is a unique filmmaker, combining these epic disasters with character portrayals, both with remarkable specificity. (Though the payoff for one element of the little girl’s story was silly, her insistence on hats as her security blanket was just right.)

But for all the scientific theory and the milking of suspense about the fates of specific characters, the disaster element was played for fun more than reality. In the central special effects sequence—of the family escaping the total destruction of Californa by car and then by plane—the series of extremely narrow escapes was so relentless that it was purely comic. And anyone playing a drinking game focused on the line “Oh my God” might wind up needing medical assistance.

But there were intriguing features. I was especially interested in the story because some of its elements were present in a novel I wrote in the 1980s (never published), specifically the President’s daughter’s involvement in unraveling a plot by the rich and powerful to escape the apocalypse. Even the ethics of the ending is similar. I suppose if I ever publish it I’ll be accused of stealing from this movie.

On the characters and their relationships: I’ve noticed that in contrast to 1950s space invaders and end-of-the-world movies which emphasized a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, the 21st century versions favor a father (usually divorced) fighting to save his children. That contrast is clearest in the 1953 George Pal version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds versus the 2005 Spielberg version. It was an estranged father's quest to save his son in Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow. And it’s true in this movie, as John Cusack is the previously neglectful father fighting to save his children.

There is a secondary romantic relationship in 2012, and credit Emmerich—his casting of Will Smith as the romantic hero in Independence Day was no fluke. Not only are his romantic leads African American (though both played by Brit actors, while an apparently Brit scientist is played by Seattle and Star Trek: Enterprise actor John Billingsley), but he follows characters of several nationalities (Indian, Tibetan as well as Russian) of all ages and in many kinds of relationships: father-son, brothers, etc.) However, that the President of the U.S. is played by a black actor (Danny Glover) was becoming a screen convention even before President Obama’s election.

In the end, however, I was most interested in the ethical aspects, in which the old (but never referenced) idea of Lifeboat Ethics is made literal. The movie is bold enough to show what feels likely—that the wealthy will buy the best seats on the next Noah’s Ark. A lot of people necessarily must be left behind, and in an almost shocking way, we naturally assume it will be those too poor to pay for passage. Contrast this with the lottery from among young candidates best able to perpetuate the species in the 1950s film When Worlds Collide (again, by George Pal.)

2012 wrings some hope out of the deaths of billions and the destruction of much of the planet (the special effects folks got to destroy most of the major landmarks and icons they missed in previous Emmerich epics), and that the poor continent of Africa is the only one to survive intact has some poetic justice. But in dealing with the Lifeboat Ethics question it’s not entirely honest: those big, energy-eating arks showed no apparent strain caused by opening their gates to the huddled masses they were going to leave behind.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your article and especially the one on BlueVoice.
Brett's acomplishment for Holmes fans and acting is sterling.
By the Edward Hardwick has narrated several Holmes stories. Currently, I've been enjoying Derek Jacobi's readings of unabridged Doyle.
I appreciate your blogs. Thank You, Robert

Maurice Mitchell said...

I'm a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, so it was a nice merging of two franchises in this article. Food for thought.

Lee said...

Just like to point out the former executive producer of Doctor Who is Russell T Davies, not Russell K. Davies. (The "T" was invented by Mr. Davies to differentiate him from another RD and is not an abbreviation, hence no period for it.)